The music biopic is a well-worn sub-genre in movie history, with examples dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. Sometimes they win Oscars. Others are a dime a dozen. However, there are always plenty of stories to tell. When I learned about a biopic coming out on Helen Reddy, I was surprised, but at the same time, intrigued. Here’s everything you need to know about I Am Woman.
I Am Woman spotlights the story of Australian singer, second wave feminist icon and 1970s legend, Helen Reddy. As the film opens, Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) a young divorcee with a toddler, arrives in the United States, her dream of being a singer reflecting in her eyes. Like most musical biopics, there’s life, troubled marriages and superstardom, with the sprinkle of reality in the third act. After years of grinding, Reddy strikes it big with the iconic tune “I Am Woman.” However, as her stock rises, her husband (and manager) Jeff Wald (Evan Peters) struggles under the weight of cocaine, alcohol and being “Mr. Helen Reddy.” Danielle Macdonald costars in the movie. Unjoo Moon directs from a script by Emma Jensen.
Truth be told, while I’ve been a fan of music from this era for a long time, I’ve only recently grown familiar with Reddy’s work. As such, I wasn’t sure how hard this movie would hit with contemporary film audiences. However, Moon taps into the heart and spirit of second wave feminism, making it feel somehow contemporary. The battles these women fight and the points they make are not only still relevant, but we are still fighting these battles today.
Fans of Reddy’s work are sure to enjoy the film. Jensen’s script sprinkles her hits enjoyably throughout. Cobham-Hervey does lip-synch to Reddy’s vocals, so the songs are instantly familiar. The one down side to this is that it pulls focus a bit in some of the numbers. Suddenly, audience members — particularly those familiar with the music– are reminded that this is indeed, a movie.
However, this isn’t to say that the songs fall flat. Moon’s direction shines when she takes a step back, showing the song not only as a performance, but to highlight the environment and setting of the movie. Perhaps the best example of this is the two uses of “I Am Woman.” The song first happens at the midway point in the narrative as Reddy hits number one. She performs it once again in the finale at a women’s rights rally as she comes out of retirement. In both instances, the pairing of Reddy’s iconic vocals and its impact on those watching strikes a personal– and truly moving vibe.
Jensen’s script hits home in an examination of the middle of the 20th Century that isn’t seen very often. In Helen Reddy’s story we see the 1960s described by Betty Friedan. It’s messier than the sitcoms of the period. The movie examines the lives of women in all their complexity and struggles. Culture doesn’t often tell these stories. As such, the fact that I Am Woman incorporates the voices of so many diverse women in the creative team, the strength of this tale becomes that much more powerful.
At the same time, the performances are incredibly strong throughout. Peters and Cobham-Hervey achieve a sweet and beautiful chemistry early on. This serves to not only hit the first act romantic beats, but also cements the tragedy of the relationship. In the second and third act, Wald is at best not likable, and at worst, toxic. However, throughout all of this, the sweet memories of the early relationship hang over the narrative, reminding audiences not only who these characters are, but how much they’ve evolved throughout the story.
Meanwhile, actress Danielle Macdonald firmly cements herself as someone to watch with her take on music journalist Lilian Roxon. Macdonald rose quickly through the indie film scene with her work in Patti Cake$ and Dumplin’. She brings a bright and vibrant performance as Roxon, a woman with a truly fascinating life, and one who needs to be spotlighted. Ultimately, her character doesn’t have a lot to do (this is Reddy’s story, after all). However, in shining a light on this interesting woman, she carves herself a fine spot in the course of this movie.
Going into I Am Woman, I wasn’t sure about the movie. Would this be a story that would pull people in? What would the market be? Do we really need another rock and roll biopic? Yes, we need this one. Director Unjoo Moon and writer Emma Jensen craft a rallying cry for the women’s movement. While the brunt of Helen Reddy’s story happens almost a half century ago, there is so much that is still relevant. There is so far we have to go. I Am Woman is powerful, moving, and, as a woman, it tapped into feelings of empowerment I haven’t felt since Wonder Woman. If this strikes a tune, musically, politically or cinematically, be sure to check this one out.
I Am Woman opens Friday September 11th digitally and onDemand.
This article was originally published 9/12/20